That REAL Old Time Religion

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This is one of the oldest hymns that is still sung today, and one of the few hymns sung by Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. It has a depth of meaning, and here I am just scratching the surface. But it is a great scratch! I once heard it sung in a German monastery, in their stone chapel. It was glorious! 

 

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

1 Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in His hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

2 King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture –
in the body and the blood.
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

3 Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the pow’rs of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.

4 At His feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim, with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the Presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
“Alleluia, alleluia!
Alleluia, Lord most high!”

 

Intro

If you were to take a Greek course in college or seminary, which is a strange way to start a sermon I admit, the first verse of the Bible you would probably work on is today’s Gospel text.  Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. It’s pretty straight forward Greek, with the exception of the use of the reflexive “the was was God.” It’s easy Greek, but it is incredibly rich and complicated theology. The Word John refers to the is Jesus. John does not start his story of Jesus with the birth, like Matthew and Luke–he starts with the beginning of time. In the beginning, before all things existed, there was Jesus–the Word, the Logo of God. In verse 14 John writes, Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

In Advent this year we are going to look at various Advent and Christmas Carols. If I’m not doing your favorite carol, you’re in good company, I’m not doing mine either. But the five carols all show us a different aspect of the Advent Story, the coming of Jesus into the world. The Hymn we are looking at this week, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence was chosen today for three reasons: It is one of the oldest hymns still sung today, it captures the essence of the essential mystery of Christmas, the Incarnation, and it is a communion hymn that goes with our celebration of Communion today. You may want to have your hymnal open as I talk about it so you have the words before you. It is on page 347 of your hymnal.

 

 

History

The hymn starts with a phrase from the prophet Habakkuk: 2:20, “Let all the earth keep silence before him.” The hymn was originally written in Greek, and was first used in the Orthodox Liturgy of St. James, which dates back to 275 AD. But before it was used in the Great Liturgy, it was sung in churches throughout Asia Minor, modern day Turkey and Greece. In the Orthodox tradition, they sing most of the Liturgy, so it is still sung today on a regular basis in many Orthodox congregations today. People talk about that Old Time Religion, and here we get that in spades.

This Christmas Eve, we will sing Silent Night at a candlelight service, joining with millions of Christians all over the earth who sing that song on Christmas Eve. When I attended the Great Christmas Liturgy in Russia, they sang Silent Night. When we sing Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, we are joining with Christians from almost the beginning of our faith. There is a place in our communion liturgy where I say:

Therefore we praise you,
joining our voices with choirs of angels,
with prophets, apostles, and martyrs,
and with all the faithful of every time and place,
who forever sing to the glory of your name:

 

When we sing this hymn with morning we will be joining “the faithful of every time and place.” Our voices will join with voices throughout the centuries who have sung a version of this as they prepare for Christmas, and as they prepare for communion.

This hymn would have remained in the Orthodox Church, and we in the West would have have heard were it not for the Oxford Movement in in the 1830s in England. During that time the Church of England was going through many changes, most brought about by the emergence of Quakers and Methodist. The radical informality of those two traditions were starting to infiltrate the Church of England, and whenever there is something new, there is always a reaction to it. In this case the reaction was to reclaim some of the more ancient liturgies of the Church, and a man named Gerald Moultrie translated this from the Greek, and it is his translation we will sing today. Ralph Vaugh Williams took a French tune, Picardy, and worked it into the tune we sing today.  This is one of the few parts of worship that the Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic and Protestant churches share today.

 

 

Incarnation

This hymn that centers around a very theological subject–the Incarnation of our Lord, Jesus Christ. In Latin, the prefix in- means “in” and caro means “flesh,” so incarnate means “in the flesh.” When we say someone is evil incarnate, we are saying that the essence of evil has shown up in a human being, that the one we are talking about personifies evil. In Christian theology, when we talk about the Incarnation, we are talking about God incarnate, God coming to us in flesh and blood. Now this is one of the most basic, but also one of the most complicated Christian doctrines. If you have your hymnal open, look at the first verse.

 …ponder nothing earthly minded,

for with blessing in His hand

Christ our God to earth descendeth,

 

And later, in the second verse,

King of kings, yet born of Mary,

as of old on earth He stood,

Lord of lords, in human vesture –

 

The doctrine of the Incarnation is front and center for us at Christ

mas. As we sing in another carol, “Veiled in flesh, the godhead see, hail the incarnate deity.” That’s from Hark the Herald Angels Sing, by the way.

Theologians have been wrestling with the idea of the incarnation, since…well ever since there was Christian theology. We see it in both of the readings for today. In John we read that the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us. God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ.

In the Epistle lesson, Paul writes: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

And then it goes into what many New Testament scholars believe is one the earliest Christian hymns.

6 who, though he was in the form of God,

    did not regard equality with God

    as something to be exploited,

7 but emptied himself,

    taking the form of a slave,

    being born in human likeness.

Now as theologians have discussed this over the years, and they have, they have come up with a lot of different takes, but almost all of them affirm one thing–God became a man in Jesus Christ because that was the best way to fix a huge problem that plagued humanity. One of the earliest, and in my opinion one of the best theologians who wrote about the Incarnation was Athanasius, back in the Fourth Century. He said the major problem facing humanity is corruption. For him there are two types of corruption that plague us: the first is the corruption of our hearts and wills, which is a moral problem, and the second is the corruption of our bodies, meaning we die, and after death, our bodies rot away.

These were two problems that people could not solve on their own. Our moral corruption was so severe, he wrote, that we can’t deal with it all by ourselves. We needed outside help. On our own, throughout history, we have not dealt with these problems very well. When it comes to our moral corruption, it is true that we are capable of some very good things, but it is also true that that in spite of all our advancements, we are capable of being perfectly horrible. And to make matters worse, sometimes, when we have the best of intentions, that is when we are actually at our worst. For example the various times people in the West tried to “civilize” people from other cultures. In the end there was always more damage than good done. God sent prophets to get us back on track, but when that didn’t work, as we say in the communion prayer:

… in the fullness of time,

out of your great love for the world,

you sent your only Son to be one of us,

to redeem us and heal our brokenness.

 

In the hymn, in verse three we sing,

as the Light of light descendeth

from the realms of endless day,

that the pow’rs of hell may vanish

as the darkness clears away.

 

Both are saying the same thing–God did not send a memo, The Father of all Creation sent his Son, to be one of us, to live as one of us, to take on our flesh. Jesus did not just take on human flesh, he took on OUR flesh, yours and mine. It gets a little cosmic here. But we are talking about God. And sometimes we are not cosmic enough. Athanasius writes,

For the Word unfolded himself everywhere, above and below, and in the depths and breadth: above in all creation, below, in the incarnation; in the depths, in hell: in breadth, in the world. Everything is filled with the knowledge of God.

St. Teresa of Avila says that God is in all things, even an ant. Everything abides in Jesus Christ, and Christ is in all. In the Incarnation God enters the world, and fills it with the divine, including us. Quoting Athanasius again, “He was made man that we might be made God.”

So while our celebration of Christmas, the Incarnation of the Son of God, is filled with things like red-nosed reindeer, and a jolly old man in a red suit, while we fill our holiday with candy canes, and trees and snowmen, and Grinches, and bells and lights, there is a stick of dynamite in the middle of our celebrations. The Almighty God, the Creator of all that is and all that will be, has entered into our world as a man, and has transformed the world by infusing it with his presence. And I say that without a hint of judgment because while we profess the extreme holy and sacred nature of the nativity, we also affirm that God is also found in the candy canes and trees and reindeer and the snowmen, and in the Lights.

 

Holiness

And God is found in this meal. In the second verse of the hymn we sing:

Lord of lords, in human vesture –
in the body and the blood.
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

 

I said this was first used in the Liturgy of St. James in the Third Century. It was used as a preparation for Communion. The priest would stand before the congregation and say, Σιγησάτω πᾶσα σάρξ βροτεία, Let all mortal flesh keep silence! This is like when the bailiff in a courtroom announces the coming of the judge, but instead of saying All rise, the priest says, Silence before your God. With fear and trembling stand before him! Put aside the vain thoughts of your mind, and for God is here with you!

This is a holy meal. If God is found in all things in the Universe, there is a special way God abides in this meal. Over the years the church  have differed on exactly how God is present in the Lord’s supper, and in the end I think all are somewhat right, and all are somewhat wrong. The more we try to explain it, the more wrong we are. The more we just accept it, the more right we are.

We do not share this meal alone. In the liturgy, I will say:

Therefore we praise you,

joining our voices with choirs of angels,

with prophets, apostles, and martyrs,

and with all the faithful of every time and place,

who forever sing to the glory of your name:

 

In the hymn we will sing:

 

At His feet the six-winged seraph,

cherubim, with sleepless eye,

veil their faces to the Presence,

as with ceaseless voice they cry,

“Alleluia, alleluia!

Alleluia, Lord most high!”

 

Alleluia indeed! Amen.

About tmrichmond3

I am the pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Medford, Oregon. I believe that faith should be able to sustain us, not oppress us.
This entry was posted in Advent, Advent Carol, Advent Sermon, Athanasius, Christmas, Christmas Carol, Incarnation, Jesus, Musings, Preaching, Sermons and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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